What Rolling Stone can learn from Grantland about a story gone wrong
Erdely’s failure to get comment from the accused, and the conflicting accounts she and her editors gave about what she had done and why, were a journalistic calamity that also put an already vulnerable source in a position where she would be shredded on the Internet and ultimately identified (against all journalistic standards on identifying rape victims) by a vainglorious self-styled crusader.
But as fierce as the debate over the Rolling Stone piece has been, “A Rape on Campus” may not be the most catastrophic piece of long-form journalism published this year. That dubious distinction probably belongs to “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a feature in Grantland about Essay Anne Vanderbilt, a woman who had designed a golf club that CBS commentator Gary McCord was promoting. The author of the story, Caleb Hannan, never got the goods on the central question of the piece: why a figure like McCord was shilling for a club that was mostly useful for scooping a ball out of a hole without requiring a player to bend over to retrieve it.
But in the course of investigating Vanderbilt’s stated credentials, Hannan discovered that she was a transgender woman and he outed her to one of her investors. Vanderbilt later committed suicide, an event that Hannan managed to make all about him and his own curiosity.
But for all that the story was a serious stain on the reputation of a young and promising publication and raised significant questions about Grantland’s ability to handle investigative reporting on sensitive subjects, it produced one useful thing, albeit at tremendously high cost: Grantland founder Bill Simmons’ explanation of what happened with “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” which might provide a useful model if Rolling Stone wants to carve some steps to climb out of the very deep hole that the magazine has dug for itself. Here are five things Rolling Stone might take from Simmons’ apology:
1. Explain your decision-making process: Part of Rolling Stone’s problem is that it’s unclear what actually happened in Erdely’s reporting process. Did she try to contact the men accused of gang rape and fail? Did she have an agreement with Jackie not to contact them? Did she ever actually have their full names? The fact that we still don’t have clear and consistent answers to these questions three weeks after “A Rape on Campus” was posted shows how poorly Rolling Stone has communicated with the public.
By contrast, in explaining the process that brought “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” to publication, Simmons walked readers through a great number of choices that Grantland editors made along the way: He explained how it was commissioned, who read it, how Hannan’s reporting process dead-ended and how Vanderbilt’s death gave the piece a new ending. Readers don’t have to speculate about what happened. They know.
2. Honestly assess your own biases or ignorance: Simmons doesn’t disavow every decision that went into “Dr. V’s Magical Putter.” He defends, and I agree he has a right to defend, Hannan’s investigation into Vanderbilt’s credentials, which is how he eventually discovered that she was a transgender woman. But Simmons is very clear about gaps in his understanding that contributed to bad decisions he and others made around the piece.
“Caleb’s biggest mistake? Outing Dr. V to one of her investors while she was still alive. I don’t think he understood the moral consequences of that decision, and frankly, neither did anyone working for Grantland,” Simmons admits. “That misstep never occurred to me until I discussed it with Christina Kahrl yesterday. But that speaks to our collective ignorance about the issues facing the transgender community in general, as well as our biggest mistake: not educating ourselves on that front before seriously considering whether to run the piece.”
The Rolling Stone piece doesn’t necessarily involve a lack of basic knowledge this significant. But as my Washington Post colleague Erik Wemple (who has been all over this story) has written, it would have been worthwhile for Erdely and her editors to do a serious gut-check about whether she brought any preconceptions into the story that might have influenced her decision-making. Did she want to find a story that was specific to a fraternity? Was she looking for a certain level of violence in the story she would use as the frame for the piece? Laying out that self-examination for readers is important.
3. Look for structural issues in your organization: One thing Simmons realized in reflecting on “Dr. V’s Magical Putter” is that the gaps in his knowledge weren’t personal. They were institutional. “I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community — and neither does my staff,” he acknowledged. “I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened.” The best way to fix that? Think about diversity as a way of building your knowledge base, not just meeting politically correct quotas.
I would be curious about the composition of the staff at Rolling Stone who worked on Erdely’s piece. Was there someone on the team who was familiar with fraternities? With trauma reporting? It sounds like lawyers vetted the piece, but just because you don’t get sued doesn’t mean your journalism is good. Maybe it’s a bit odd for me to be calling for greater representation for frat dudes or throwers of keg parties at national magazines. But it’s always valuable to have someone in the room who can speak to whatever culture is the subject of a piece — and to have someone who can look at that culture with a gimlet eye. Which brings us to my next point.
4. Ask for outside perspectives: As part of his apology and audit of his own organization, Simmons did what he should have done during the editing process: He asked an outsider both to Grantland and to the perspectives represented in Grantland’s staff to take a look at what had happened. Christina Kahrl, who is a transgender woman and a baseball reporter of long experience, penned a tough critique of Grantland under Grantland’s imprimatur.
“What should Grantland have done instead?” she argued. “It really should have simply stuck with debunking those claims to education and professional expertise relevant to the putter itself, dropped the element of her gender identity if she didn’t want that to be public information — as she very clearly did not — and left it at that.”
Rolling Stone would do itself a service by trying something similar. One person the magazine might solicit to do an audit or analysis is Kristen Lombardi, the Center for Public Integrity reporter who previously covered sexual assault disciplinary processes at the University of Virginia and other schools. When I spoke to her Friday, she made a forceful case that verifying survivor’s stories and reporting them out in detail doesn’t mean treating rape victims with suspicion or mistrust. I’d be curious to get her perspective, among others, about how Rolling Stone might have better met its obligations to its source and to the truth.
5. Take responsibility: For all Simmons lays out the process of reporting and editing “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” ultimately he was clear about where the buck stops at Grantland: “Somewhere between 13 and 15 people read the piece in all, including every senior editor but one, our two lead copy desk editors, our publisher and even ESPN杭州桑拿会所,’s editor-in-chief. All of them were blown away by the piece. Everyone thought we should run it,” he wrote. “Ultimately, it was my call. So if you want to rip anyone involved in this process, please, direct your anger and your invective at me. Don’t blame Caleb or anyone that works for me. It’s my site and anything this significant is my call. Blame me. I didn’t ask the biggest and most important question before we ran it — that’s my fault and only my fault.”
That kind of talk is in stark contrast with Rolling Stone’s initial statement last week, in which managing editor Will Dana told readers that “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.” Later, he changed the statement to read “We should have not made this agreement with Jackie and we should have worked harder to convince her that the truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story. These mistakes are on Rolling Stone, not on Jackie.” That’s very little to offer her — or us — and offered very late in the process. But then, if Rolling Stone was ready to take responsibility for its decisions and to do so in a clear and unambiguous way, the criticism of “A Rape on Campus” wouldn’t have reached such epic and necessary proportions.
Rosenberg writes The Post’s Act Four web channel covering culture and politics. 杭州桑拿网,杭州桑拿,washingtonpost杭州桑拿会所,/news/act-four/